Kuna Women making traditional Cocoa, Panama. Photo by Chris Kiihlam

Giving Back: Healing with Cocoa
Organic Spa Magazine
by Evelyn Theiss


The Kuna Indians know the secret of cocoa—not just that it tastes delicious, but that its healing properties are profound. It is the ‘antioxidant of antioxidants,’ as one researcher describes it. Cocoa power bests even renowned super fruits—acai, blueberry, cranberry, and pomegranate—in that respect.

The Kuna, who live on the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama, still harvest and prepare their native cocoa drink as they have for centuries. They drink a lot of it—40 cups a week per person, more than any other people in the world.

Dr. Norman Hollenberg, a physician and Harvard researcher, has studied the Kuna for more than 20 years and he discovered what drinking that beverage does for them: They have one-ninth the incidence of heart disease, and one-sixteenth the number of age-related diseases, including diabetes and cancer, of residents on mainland Panama.

He says it is the flavanoids in the unprocessed cocoa that provide those amazing health protective properties that the Kuna enjoy.

Chris Kilham, known around the world as the Medicine Hunter, has greatly helped spread the word of the healing power of cocoa, which comes from the berries of the cocoa tree. He has been with the Kuna as they prepare it, and has tasted their concoction—which is made without milk.

“They take a pot of water and place bananas into it, then take ground-up cocoa beans and cook them in with the bananas and water, then they strain out banana pieces,” says Kilham. “The liquid tastes sweet and creamy and delicious.”

The Kuna don’t have milk or sugar, so they don’t ingest the calories found in our hot cocoa. But it wouldn’t be easy for us to consume the amount of cocoa required to get the major anti-oxidant effects the Kuna get. So the CocoaWell company has come up with a supplement that provides the same health benefits of cocoa.

The CocoaWell product line supplies the equivalent antioxidant power of 16 bars of dark chocolate in two small capsules, without the calories, fat, and sugar of a beverage. While incorporating Kuna wisdom in its business, CocoaWell gives back. The company works with the Kuna Cocoa Institute, not only ensuring that it sources pure and certified fair trade cocoa, but also to improve farmer’s livelihoods.

The philanthropic institute, funded by a portion of the CocoaWell revenues, enables the Kuna to continue their traditional harvesting methods, allows them to replant thousands of cocoa tress to secure their way of life, and to preserve their culture.

“The Institute is intended to help the Kuna protect and promote their culture, and to help them get the things they need—whether it is seedlings for the cocoa tress, or better access to medicine,” say Kilham, who works with CocoaWell. “They have tribal council and elders who articulate what they need. And that is what we try to give.”

For more information, check cocoawell.com, kunainstitute.org, and medicinehunter.com/cocoa

September 2011